September 8, 2022

What's in a name?

INSIGHTS
A practical guide to naming your startup
Written by:

25m Studio

Naming a company can be intimidating. It's like naming a child, except you also need trademark clearance, a solid URL, and social handles - that ideally match across platforms…    

When we started the creative studio at 25madison, one of the first things we had to figure out was how to name the new companies we were creating. From an initial google search of "how to name a company quickly," to today, 50+ company and project names later, we've learned a LOT about naming. What follows is our practical guide for creating great company names.

But first, some background on types of names, traits of a great company name, naming trends, and test names vs. go to market names.

 

Types of names

There are a few different types of names to consider when developing a company name. The below chart lays out a spectrum of name types from invented (wholly made up names), to evocative (a compelling word that is loosely associated), to descriptive (straightforward association to company or industry). Based on your offering, industry, and brand personality, you can determine where along this spectrum feels comfortable for your company.

 

Traits of a great company name

Below are 9 traits that your company name should ideally have. Keep these in mind when generating name options. Once you have whittled your naming options down to the ~20 or so you’ll take seriously, come back to this list to gut-check the quality of your names (more on name vetting, below).

  1. Aligns to Brand Strategy
  1. Short & Easy to Pronounce
  1. Meets Needs Online
  1. Passes the Search Test
  1. Tells a Story
  1. Stands Out (but not too far)
  1. Expandable Into Brand Language
  1. Avoids Clichés or Overused Words
  1. Culturally Friendly


Naming Trends

Yes, like most things, company naming goes through trends. I'm sure we all get nostalgic when we hear names from the early .com boom: eBay, eHarmony, Netscape, Napster. And how about the craft movement in the late aughts that resulted in the proliferation of names that took two seemingly unrelated words and joined them with an ampersand: Rag & Bone, Stella & Dot, Mott & Bow, Bindle & Keep, Boll & Branch, we could go on. This trend was so popular that it spawned the hipster name generator.  

All this to say that naming goes through trends. After all, companies are a product of their generation. Falling into tropes is somewhat difficult to dodge, but don't fret if you don't immediately land on your forever name. There's hope. Renaming your company in the future is shown to correlate to an increase in stock price.


Test names vs go to market names

At 25madison we are working on many companies at once, each of which are at different stages of maturity. Many of our ideas will make a substantial pivot or won’t ever make it to market, so it doesn't make sense to over invest in a name early on. Enter: the test name. When a new project starts, we'll quickly brainstorm and give a project a name. When we feel great about an idea and want to green light further investment, we'll decide whether the test name fits, or if we'd like to go through our full naming process, outlined below. More often than not we rename the company, which gives a fun origin story down the road. "Remember when harbor was called Safeable?!"

 

Company naming process

 

Below are the steps we follow at 25madison to name our companies and projects. We don't profess to say this is the best way to name a company, but it works for us. We typically strive to complete this process in about two weeks from start to finish, although we've done it in two days, and up to six weeks depending on timeline, project complexity, and number of stakeholders. This timeline does not include developing the brand platform.

 

1. Develop your brand platform: the creative brief

Your brand platform is a one-page document that summarizes your value proposition, reasons to believe (features), brand pillars (values), and brand personality (how does your company act). These foundational brand elements should be the jumping off point for name brainstorming, as well as the standard by which you select your final name.  

 

2. Develop name themes (1-2 hours)

To avoid the intimidation of a blank page that you'd like to fill with possible names, it's very helpful to develop conceptual themes in which to brainstorm. This also helps ensure that you are brainstorming within fruitful territory. For example, with harbor, our preparedness app (later acquired by Citizen), our name themes were: things that make you feel safe, animals that prepare, safe places, and ways to protect your family. Your themes should be authentic to your brand, offering, and personality. Strive to have at least four themes to brainstorm within.  

 

3. Now for the fun part: brainstorming (2-4 days)

Yep. Just start thinking of name ideas. Get your whole team involved. Write every one down. There are no bad ideas. Why? Because your bad idea may spark genius for someone else.  

Our approach to naming is very democratic. Everyone is welcome to contribute name ideas. We drop our names into a shared spreadsheet and strive to get to at least 200 names ideas before we move on to the next step. We often use the thesaurus, comb the internet for inspiration, or get up and go for a walk to spark fresh ideas. The goal is to squeeze the lemon dry of possible directions.  

Have fun! Don't get too worked up over creating perfection. Trust the process.

Here’s our google sheet naming template.

Download a copy and edit for your company and team to save you some time!

 

4. Voting (1 day)

Like we said, our process is very democratic. Once we've created our list of names, we add a column in our spreadsheet for every person that is materially involved in a given company (keep to 5-7 people max). You want your voters to know the brand platform and deeply understand the goals of your company. When you’re ready, voters can go into the spreadsheet and vote for names they feel are strong options (as many or as few as they'd like).  

From voting, aim to have about twenty or so names that rise to the top with multiple votes each. Regroup with the team to review the names, allow folks to speak up for names they believe in that may not have gotten many votes, and allow for new name ideas to come up that you may want to add to the list of names that will move on to vetting. This regroup is important as great ideas may come to the forefront. This was the case with one of our startups, Handspring Health. The name “Handspring” only got one vote, but a strong argument was made for the name to be included in the next round. Handspring ended up becoming the final name (and we love it!).

Make voting easy by using the template, above. ☝️

 

5. Vetting (1-2 days)

Once you have your top 20 or so names, it’s time to objectively vet those names with the goal of whittling down the field to 2-3 strong, viable options. For vetting, we’ll usually set aside a day or two as it requires a fair amount of desk research.  

For each of the top names, research and rank:  

  • Creative brief fit: How well does this name fit your brand platform?
  • URL availability: Can you purchase a great URL? We use instantdomaincheck.com, https://cunningbot.com, and  godaddy.com to check.
  • SEO findings: Can your name rank for your product? Are the current search results crowded or open? Are there questionable search results that pop up that you wouldn’t want associated with your company? Shout out to https://keywordseverywhere.com who help us understand difficulty to rank.  
  • USPTO availability: Searching the US Patent Office’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) will give you an idea of whether your company can be trademarked for the services you’ll be offering.
  • Corporate entity search: What other companies have the same name? We use http://www.opencorporates.com to see what other registered companies share your name, and what the actual corporate entity could be called (based on availability to register in the desired state of registration).


Here’s a snapshot of how we compile and rank our findings for each name using our naming template. Not to state the obvious, but green is all clear, yellow means there is some concern, red means the findings rule the name out completely.  


6. Testing (1-2 days)

With a narrowed set of 2-3 strong, viable options, the final step is to test these names with the general public with two objectives: 1) to understand how each name performs against your brand’s equity attributes, and 2) to check for any red flags you may have missed thus far (cultural connotations, very negative reactions, broad misinterpretations of the name).  


We do this by surveying 100 people per name, generally asking them the following questions:

1. What comes to mind when they hear the name?

2. How likely would the name stand out in social?

3. How well does the name represent the brand’s equity attributes (e.g. “How well does the name Pattern convey “Progressiveness?” and “How well does the name Pattern convey “Tech-driven?”)

4. In what industry could the company conduct business?  

5. What type of company could this be?

6. What existing brands come to mind when you hear the name?

7. Finally, we’ll give a description of what the company does, and ask what people think of the name now that they know what the company does.


Note:  

We do not test multiple names in one survey and we never compare names or have people pick a favorite. That’s not the point of this exercise. You are trying to get an understanding of what each name evokes so that you can make an informed decision of which name best represents your brand and your long term vision. The people you are surveying do not know this information, so don’t put the decision in the hands of the public. You know what’s best for your company!


Also, the general public tends to prefer more descriptive names because there is an easy mental jump from name to services. This works well for your local plumber, but not so well for the company you hope becomes a household name. Uber wouldn’t be the same company if it was named “Rides-R-Us”. So don’t be disheartened when you get comments like “terrible name!” or “makes no sense!”. You’re selecting a name to be an open vessel that you can build brand equity and affinity around.  



7. Trademark Search (3-4 days)

Coming out of testing you likely have narrowed to one or two options. The prudent thing to do at this point is to perform an extensive trademark search with a trademark attorney to ensure that the name you’ve selected is, in fact, available for use. You’ve already done your own diligence through the USPTO trademark search which should give you a fair level of confidence, but having the opinion of an attorney will give you the final stamp of approval. Bonus: The attorney can subsequently file your trademark application.  


In the event that the name is not available (it happens!), you go back to your list and run a trademark search for your second name option (and so forth, but typically you’ll have a usable option within your top two).


8. Summarize & Select!

Take everything you’ve done in steps 1-7 and pull them together in a recommendation. The company founder(s) will make the final call on their company name. Here’s a simple summary example we pull together for our founders to help make the final call.  

(naming summary example developed for Handspring Health)


You’ve made it! Now is the time to announce your selection and make it official. It feels great to land on a name and begin building your company and brand around it. Congratulations!

Overwhelmed by the prospect of naming your company?

That’s what we’re here for. The 25madison studio is tailor built to support the needs of very early stage companies. As your co-founder, we work alongside you from idea to MVP, and product-market fit to scale. We tailor our engagements with founders, backing them with the skills you need across business strategy, product creation, and brand development.  


Have a great idea? Ready to learn more about how we’d help build your brand and company?  

Let’s chat.

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Building businesses is in our DNA. We’re a small but mighty team of tinkerers, designers, geeks (the cool kind), operators, business moguls and everything in between. Wildly strategic, yet so deep into it that we’ve got the scars to prove it.

Whether it's with the 25m Studio, 25madison Ventures, or 25m Health, we’re looking for great people who love their work, solving problems, and having fun. Jerks need not apply.